All you need to know about Xi Jinping’s remarks on Hong Kong in his report to the party congress
Scholars and lawmakers break down key phrases like ‘comprehensive jurisdiction’ and ‘high degree of autonomy’ that dotted the president’s speech
President Xi Jinping on Wednesday set the course for Hong Kong and Macau’s governance, calling for the melding of Beijing’s authority, or “comprehensive jurisdiction”, over the two cities with their “high degree of autonomy” in a natural or “organic” way.
In an unprecedented move, Xi also cited these concepts and the “one country, two systems” model as an integral part of the Communist Party’s governance ideology and canon, as he rolled out his five-yearly work report at the opening of the 19th party congress in Beijing.
Xi did not touch on any pro-independence sentiment in Hong Kong, but said Beijing would not allow anyone to “separate any part of the Chinese territory from China”.
So what does it mean to “combine comprehensive jurisdiction and high degree of autonomy in an organic way”, and why did it matter?
What is Beijing’s “comprehensive jurisdiction” over Hong Kong? Is it something new?
It’s not. The phrase “comprehensive jurisdiction” was first mentioned when Beijing’s State Council, or cabinet, released a 15,500-word white paper spelling out what it called the “accurate” understanding of one country, two systems in June 2014.
Issued at a time when Hong Kong was debating political reform to achieve universal suffrage for the chief executive in 2017, it said Beijing enjoys comprehensive jurisdiction over Hong Kong, while the city was given “high degree of autonomy” to run its affairs only as authorised by Beijing.
The paper also listed out at least nine types of power that Beijing enjoys over Hong Kong, as stipulated in the Basic Law, the city’s mini-constitution, such as the power over defence, foreign affairs and political reform, as well as the ability to appoint and instruct the city’s chief executive and to amend and interpret the Basic Law.
Why is the mention of “comprehensive jurisdiction” such a big deal?
Hong Kong pan-democrats and localists, who accounted for 55 per cent of the vote share in the Legislative Council general election last year, rejected the white paper for “redefining” the city’s relationship with Beijing, especially because the term “comprehensive jurisdiction” was not found in the Basic Law.
Under Article 2 of the Basic Law, China’s legislature, the National People’s Congress, authorises Hong Kong to exercise a high degree of autonomy and enjoy executive, legislative and independent judicial power, including that of final adjudication of cases in the city’s courts.
Pan-democrats argued that under the notion of “comprehensive jurisdiction”, Hong Kong’s degree of autonomy would be reduced or confined.
Why are Hong Kong people so concerned about the city’s “high degree of autonomy”?
It was because Hong Kong’s crucial principles such as rule of law, judicial independence, free economy and human rights – are contingent on a the city maintaining a high degree of autonomy.
The Hong Kong government also attached much importance on maintaining Hong Kong’s international reputation of being a financial hub with an independent judiciary.
How high is this “high degree of autonomy”?
Since the 1997 handover, it was a common understanding among Hong Kong people that the city’s “high degree of autonomy” means Beijing would be hands-off apart from the city’s defence and foreign affairs.
But in June 2011, then head of the National People’s Congress Wu Bangguo issued an unambiguous reminder to Hong Kong over the limits to its power: it only has as much autonomy as already laid down by Beijing.
What does Xi mean when he said the two sets of power should be “combined in an organic way”?
The word “organic” has often been used in the Chinese-language to describe food and agricultural methods that are produced naturally or practised without artificial chemicals, but it has rarely been used in Chinese and Hong Kong politics.
Commentators believe that when Xi used the phrase “combined in an organic way”, it carried both the meaning of flexibility and an inseparable integration.
Concluding his three-day visit to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the city’s reunification with China, Xi cited an ancient poem to say Hong Kong had “grown exuberant like a bamboo or a pine tree”.
He also invoked the metaphor of a tree to express the role of one country, two systems, stressing the anchoring role of the state.
Commenting on Xi’s remarks on Wednesday, Zhang Xiaoming, head of Beijing’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, said: “A special administrative region’s power of high degree of autonomy … branched out from Beijing’s sovereignty and comprehensive jurisdiction over it.”
Professor Lau Siu-kai, vice-chairman of The Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macau Studies, said Xi was reminding Hong Kong people that Beijing’s authority is as, if not more, important than the city’s semi-autonomous powers.
What did Hong Kong’s lawmakers make of this “organic” notion?
Democratic Party leader Wu Chi-wai said Xi’s emphasis on “comprehensive jurisdiction” showed that Beijing was going to tighten its grip on Hong Kong.
“Xi has made it clear that the [central govenment’s] policies on Hong Kong should be based on his own interpretation of the Basic Law, which is: Beijing enjoys a full jurisdiction over the city’s affairs.”
Wu argued such a gesture would do no good in resolving the tensions between Hong Kong and Beijing.
Pro-Beijing lawmaker Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee, chairwoman of the New People’s Party, also said Xi’s repeated mention of “comprehensive jurisdiction” showed Beijing is concerned that the city could see more unrest, and the local government should take heed.
“Provided that Hong Kong is able to keep the separatist sentiments at bay …I see no reason why the central government would tighten up its control over Hong Kong,” Ip said.
How did that relate to Hong Kong’s pro-independence sentiments?
During his visit on the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to China, Xi warned: “Any attempt to endanger China’s sovereignty and security, to challenge the power of the central government … [crosses] the red line.”
On Wednesday, Xi did not directly addressed the issue of the nascent pro-independence sentiments in Hong Kong. But in a veiled reference to regions such as Hong Kong and Taiwan, Xi said: “We will never allow anyone, any organisation, or any political party, at any time or in any form, to separate any part of Chinese territory from China.”
Xi also said his central leadership will continue to support the Hong Kong government in “fulfilling their constitutional responsibility of safeguarding China’s sovereignty, security and development interests”.
What now? What are the Beijing and Hong Kong governments going to do next?
Political analysts said it remains to be seen how Hong Kong’s social and political divisions would change in the light of Xi’s speech.
According to the University of Hong Kong’s opinion poll last month, 34.4 per cent of Hongkongers said they trusted Beijing, while 46.4 per cent said they did not.
But with Beijing’s position on having complete jurisdiction over Hong Kong now becoming part of the ideological canon of the Communist Party, pan-democrats feared that Beijing’s authorities in the city, such as its liaison office, would “continue to meddle with” the city’s internal affairs.
Lau also expected the Hong Kong government to face mounting calls to curb pro-independence forces, and to resurrect efforts to formulate national security legislation.